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How Robert Bernstein Discovered Toni Morrison

Bob Bernstein, 25 years at the helm of Random House, remembers when publishing was a good business

Robert L. Bernstein
May 30, 2019
Robert L. Bernstein speaking at The New Press' 2014 cocktail event at Housing Works Bookstore Café.(Tiffany L. Clark)
Robert L. Bernstein speaking at The New Press’ 2014 cocktail event at Housing Works Bookstore Café.(Tiffany L. Clark)

Robert L. Bernstein died this week at 96. In honor of his passing, Tablet is republishing this speech given by the acclaimed founder of Human Rights Watch and longtime president of Random House on the occasion of his being honored along with the author Toni Morrison, whom he discovered, for their contributions to social justice. Tablet is proud to reprint his remarks here in full.

On Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014, Robert L. Bernstein was honored by The New Press at their fifth annual Social Justice Awards. Bernstein is the founder of Human Rights Watch. He is also the longtime president of Random House, which he led for 25 years. Last week, he was celebrated alongside acclaimed novelist Toni Morrison, who Bernstein himself “discovered” as she toiled away as an editor at a small publishing house in Syracuse in the mid-1960s. Besides Morrison, the legendary publisher issued works by many great American authors, including William Faulkner, James Michener, Dr. Seuss, and William Styron. He was also responsible for bravely ensuring that writers whose work could not be published in their own countries were published around the world: Andrei Sakharov, Elena Bonner, Václav Havel, Jacobo Timerman, and Wei Jingsheng, among others, owe their English-language audiences to Random House. The New Press—known for its serious intellectual, boundary-pushing books, including Michelle Alexander’s best-selling The New Jim Crow—recognized Bernstein for his unyielding support of their efforts since their founding in 1990. Previous New Press Social Justice honorees include Alice Walker (2010); Bob Herbert and Joseph Stiglitz (2011); Michelle Alexander, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and André Schiffrin (2012); and Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger (2013).


Let me start by stating how honored and delighted I am to be sharing this evening’s honors with Toni Morrison. Without being unduly modest, I believe most of you have been attracted to this event by the chance to see and hear this fabulous woman.

This is the second time in my life when I’ve been especially fortunate in sharing a speaking platform. Many years ago, I was asked to give a speech on human rights in New Delhi, India. I wondered who would come. When I arrived at the venue, I saw that the hall was jammed with about 1,500 people. Just before I spoke, I learned that the next speaker was the Dalai Lama … So, thank you, Toni.

Next, I have to tell you a quick word about living 64 years with my amazing wife, Helen. Among her many attributes, she has a way of making up words. For example, she would explain tonight as being “interdigitated.” Because the word wasn’t in our own Random House Dictionary, I thought it didn’t exist. But recently, I found out that it does. As you will see, for me, tonight is a truly “interdigitated” evening.

I started with Toni; now, a few words about André Schiffrin. Around 1962, Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer, the two wonderful men who founded Random House and hired both me and André, bought Pantheon Books. The Wolffs, who had started the company and had just published Dr. Zhivago, retired and left André as editor-in-chief. At the time, the Random House offices were in the wonderful Villard House between 50th and 51st Street, just behind St. Patrick’s. There was the most charming little building right around the corner, and that’s where Pantheon moved.

Robert with fellow honoree, Toni Morrison. (Photo: Tiffany L. Clark)
Robert with fellow honoree, Toni Morrison. (Photo: Tiffany L. Clark)

I didn’t see much of André, except at sales conferences, until 1965, when all of a sudden Bennett Cerf announced he would retire and I would succeed him as CEO and President. In 1966, not only did I become head, but Random House was sold to RCA. It became immediately obvious that I had been cast into the role of bridging the world of small publishers and that of big business. To do this, I kept Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, Modern Library, and Ballantine editorially independent, as they had always been, sharing sales and financial backing. I explained to RCA that we didn’t have a five-year plan in publishing, at least one that I was aware of, but that we just muddled through. To those of you who know André, that arrangement suited him fine. We compromised on having an “annual review,” and when it came time to review Pantheon, in marched the financial people. They explained that Pantheon had lost a little money, and perhaps should cut back. They acknowledged that backlist sales were up, but still suggested strongly that I tell André that he has to make a profit.

André would arrive in my office shortly after the financial department. He would explain that the reason he didn’t show more of a profit was due to the overhead assigned to him, which he didn’t control. He didn’t need a 40- to 50-person sales department. After all, Pantheon had sold 1 million copies of Dr. Zhivago with two salesmen. He didn’t need to be in a space just off of Madison Avenue. A beat-up brownstone in Greenwich Village would do just fine. He suggested that he be judged by Pantheon’s list and pointed out that cutting any of it would leave less sales but the same overhead that they didn’t control. All I can say is that I heard this story 25 times in my 25 years, so I obviously was convinced. Shortly after I departed in 1990, a new Random House president felt differently, and André was dismissed.

Following his dismissal, the street in front of Random House’s offices at 50th street and Third Avenue looked like Occupy Wall Street, as acclaimed authors and Random House editors alike protested and vented their anger. What was to become of this publisher, who seemingly didn’t understand that publishing should have a profit every quarter, and certainly, every year?

Well, now we know what happens to a publisher that thinks differently. We are celebrating André’s wonderful creation, The New Press. I stand in awe as I think of the fantastic job of starting a new, small publishing house in this day and age of giants. First, the idea of financing it as a 501(c)3, a brilliant idea. Add to that, setting up the printing arrangements, the distribution, the publicity, finding brilliant young editors, and the office space to house them. It’s a pleasure to be here, honoring André Schiffrin, who proved that finding worthy books was the hard part and that the rest required only a lot of determined work. The secret of all this success, of course, is hiring the right people. So we should also thank André for leaving Diane Wachtell and her wonderful staff in place to succeed him.

Please note that I should stop here. I want to take a few more minutes to tell two stories: the first about Pantheon, which I will use to introduce the second, which interdigitates back to Toni Morrison. While André wasn’t a school book publisher, one of his authors was Jim Loewen, who later became famous for publishing Lies My Teacher Told Me, published by the New Press and which Diane Wachtell has told me sold 2 million copies to date. Jim taught at Tougaloo, a historically black college in Jackson, Mississippi. The history of Mississippi was a required course in Mississippi high schools, and the book being used in the course described the Ku Klux Klan as a white people’s organization necessary to protect themselves, and went on to depict the Native American’s Trail of Tears from Mississippi to Oklahoma also as necessary. Jim Loewen and another professor wrote a new history textbook, Mississippi: Conflict and Change, correcting this inaccurate point of view. No textbook publisher would touch it, as they thought they would lose all of their business in Mississippi. André agreed to publish it. Random House had recently acquired the L.W. Singer Company, a small textbook company in Syracuse, NY. Singer did business in Mississippi as well and said if Pantheon went ahead and published Jim Loewen’s book, they would lose all of their business in the state. André came to tell me about his discussion with the Singer salespeople. We, of course, decided to publish the book. André always gave me a lot of credit for backing him up. The real credit goes to André’s recognition of the need to publish it, and of course Professor Loewen’s determination to correct history.

Back to interdigitation. One aside: Brown University had an exchange program with Tougaloo, which my son, Peter, participated in during 1972, and had taken Professor Loewen’s course. That’s a minor point in the interdigitation story. Here is a major one: When we bought L.W. Singer, Bennett sent me up to Syracuse to see what I thought of our new division. I met a young editor who seemed brilliant. I asked her what she was doing in Syracuse, and she explained she had two sons to raise, and saw Syracuse as a safer environment than New York City. I asked her what she would like to do now that Random House owned Singer. She said, “Well, of course, I’d like to be a Random House editor.” I told her I had just become president and thought that was possible. Her name was Toni Morrison. Quite a dividend for buying a small textbook company. There is of course a lot more to say about Toni Morrison, but that’s for another time. So, here’s to a great evening remembering and celebrating André and his New Press, and honoring Toni.


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Robert L. Bernstein is the former publisher of Random House and the founder of Human Rights Watch.